The view from inside Mediastan

mediastan-the-documentary-about-wikileaks-that-assange-does-want-you-to-see-trailer-700x500The Kyrgyz have a proverb which goes, “Balaluu üi bazar; balasyz üi mazar”: “When there are children, the house is a bazaar; When there are no children, the house is a cemetery.” Although intended as an admonition for people doubting whether they want to become parents, it’s equally fitting as a warning to governments about the dangers of limiting the freedom of the press.

However, what Julian Assange and Johannes Wahlström seem to have discovered in their new film Mediastan is that there are, and shall always, be limits to the press – the expected political, legal, and financial limits, but also cultural, cognitive, and ethical limits. And as they endeavor to argue in the American context, it’s also dreadfully easy to mistake a mazar for a bazaar.

I’ve been asked by WikiLeaks-Press.org whether I have any reactions to the film. They came to me because a little over two years ago, I published an academic essay about WikiLeaks’ complicated impact upon the region. I’ve decided to take this as an opportunity to update some of the things I said therein, as well as to articulate what I imagine will be the view on Mediastan from within Mediastan itself.

Today is Kurman Ait (Eid al-Adha), the Feast of the Sacrifice in the Muslim faith. It’s a universal holiday commemorating the necessity of sacrifice in the name of one’s beliefs and for the sake of the greater good. So, I suppose it’s an appropriate day on which to pen this review, since journalism should be, first and foremost, about such self-sacrifice.

In the spirit of sacrifice, then, I ask viewers to spend their hard-earned dollars, euros, rubles, tenge, etc. on Mediastan, rather than waste them on the Hollywood spectacle The Fifth Estate. In the least, reviews of the latter indicate that you will have a much more meaningful experience from the former. And even if you strongly disagree with Assange and his belief system, you should nonetheless trust the Kyrgyz proverb: ultimately, it’s definitely better to have those noisy children from WikiLeaks in the house than not.

But no matter which film you choose to see, keep the critical faculties of your cerebral cortex activated. For instance, Mediastan has been criticized as anti-American “agitprop” and biased by some, but this is an empty and facile criticism. The entire purpose of Mediastan is to raise questions – certain questions that arise from a certain perspective, yes, even a certain bias.

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Abai Kunanbaev, 1000 miles, and two continents

I love travelling, but jeeze, I’ve done a lot in a short amount of time. After my last post — a theme which, by the way, I shall be exploring at greater length in this blog in the future — I wrapped up the semester and headed to the United States for two weeks with a close Belgian friend. This was my itinerary: New York City to Philadelphia to Washington, DC to New York City to Boston (with a furlough to Manchester, New Hampshire) to New York City. That’s approximately 1000 miles, the majority of which was covered in a six-day spurt. I also backpacked through several of these cities, and by “backpacked”, I often mean running with 10 kilos strapped to my back, as I tried to make it to various appointments (I proved to be in better shape than I had realized).

It was a mixed experience. On the one hand, I was able to re-connect with many loved ones as well as several of my long-lost relatives. Once again, I felt that swinging by only once a year is simply not sufficient, particularly as my parents get older, but the inevitable frustration arises that I simply don’t have the time or money to go back every, say, six months. Frankly, I wish that I could just put all my loved ones into a suitcase and bring them back with me.

On the other hand, I was also reminded, in rather stark relief, why I’m simply happier being outside of the United States. The massive disparities in wealth and security, the extreme individualism coupled with extreme patriotism, the infrastructural decay and the post-modern yuppie condos, the insane amount of cars and obese people — and all of these phenomena mutually reinforcing, too — drove me batty within only a few days. There was also a strong feeling of powerlessness: this is just how the American system has become and shall remain, regardless of the man (or woman) in the White House.

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Journalism as sacred dialogue

Today marks my third year as a member of the Baha’i Faith. To commemorate, I would like to explore something which I hope might be a positive theoretical contribution to my religious community: exploring and engaging in journalism as a fundamentally religious endeavor which, in its highest expression, constitutes a sacred dialogue. To develop this, I first need to take some time to explore the ways in which journalism, often rightly recognized as a scientific-like activity, nonetheless has, as it were, a religious soul.

The spiritual principle of detachment dictates that one give and then let go, so what follows herein is something that I am attempting to work out in such a spirit. It is also as much good spirituality as it is good academic etiquette to give credit where credit’s due: the phrase, “journalism as a sacred dialogue”, actually comes from one of my professors, Bart Pattyn, in response to my blog post, “Transcendental Journalism?”, wherein I describe my original intuition. The notion of “journalism with the soul of religion” is also inspired by recent work, as-yet unreleased, of my friend Ben Schewel into the notion of “religion with the soul of science”.

So, to get to the point: my essential thesis is that the journalist is a breed of philosopher as described by Edmund Husserl. As such, he or she can be understood as engaging in an activity that is quite surprisingly spiritual, to the point that it might even be described as in some sense mystical.

By claiming that the journalist is a Husserlian philosopher I mean that the journalist is a phenomenologist. Alternatively, my claim here can be understood that all critical intellectuals are phenomenologists when they are engaged in the study of experience, a definition that encompasses many of the “erudite” professions, from anthropologists to artists. In my view, the journalist and the philosopher are among those who are the most routinely engaged in such a study.  Either way, the journalist and the philosopher are blood siblings, although it is hard to see this from outward appearances — ironically, we must be phenomenologists to understand the deep family resemblance between them.

Without intending to do injustice to the complexity of Husserl’s thought, as I understand him, a phenomenologist is a person who “takes a step back” (“epoché“) from experience by assuming the stance of a “transcendental subject” in order to examine and report upon the former. Husserl could just as well have been describing the journalist. Now, in my experience, many secular Western journalists would prefer terminology like “neutral observer” or “spectator”, but my Islamic colleagues would agree with a Husserlian description of their work. That is because in traditional Islamic thought, going back to al-Ghazzali (“occasionalism“), there really is no such thing as a “neutral observer”; rather, there is the divine subjectivity that holds everything together and that only appears as a neutral observer because it is the perspective that bedrocks all perspectives:

“No vision can grasp Him, but His grasp is over all vision. God is above all comprehension, yet is acquainted with all things” — Qur’an 6:103

I think it noteworthy that Husserl himself has described the “step back” with spiritual terminology: “resolved to understand the world out of the spirit”, “spiritual movement”, “religious conversion”, “fundamental transformation”, “ground experience”, “un-humanize”, and “meditation”. He probably means this in the Buddhistic sense of stilling the mind, but this terminology brings with it a contemplative connotation, namely, that the stance of spectator requires a stepping outside of one’s perspective so as to examine oneself and the world more surgically and meaningfully.

We may ask: “who” is the transcendental subject? Husserl probably has in mind the Cartesian cogito (“I think, therefore I am”), which isn’t necessarily either the “I” we individually associate with, opening the possibility that it is God. I don’t know whether Husserl himself intended this (and if one reads Descartes very closely, he’s actually quite fuzzy about the relationship between the cogito and the divine), but I think the Islamic tradition makes a good case that the transcendental subject is the divine, if not the divine essence, then that aspect of the divine which is the “grasp over all vision”.

What this means, then, is that the phenomenologist — and by extension, the journalist and the philosopher — has a hugely important element of the mystical in the Heschelian or Avempacean sense of them aspiring to unite with the transcendental and absolute, thereby achieving the divine perspective, a.k.a., “objectivity” and “neutrality”. Whether they are successful and how we could assess this is an entirely different matter; what interests me here is this fundamental religiosity at the core of journalistic and philosophical work (ironically, even if the specific journalist or philosopher is a staunch atheist and opponent of religion).

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Transcendental journalism?

“In this Day the secrets of the earth are laid bare before the eyes of men. The pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world. They reflect the deeds and the pursuits of divers peoples and kindreds. They both reflect them and make them known. They are a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech. This is an amazing and potent phenomenon. However, it behoveth the writers thereof to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. They should enquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing.” — Baha’u’llah, Tarzát #6

When I was in the Alps, I had a productive conversation with a young Italian student who is doing her doctoral work at the Sorbonne. She was curious about my opinion on the “faith and reason problem” as a “religious philosopher” (i.e., a philosopher who is religious and who thinks about religion). I was surprised by my answer.

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Journalism on Solaris

If I’m capable of summoning the discipline to complete my PhD proposal and application, what I would like to do is to research ethnic and religious identity among Central Asia’s journalists, particularly how these factors shape their approach to reporting news. In my view, journalists comprise a key group of social architects in a society’s self-understanding, as it is as much through media as education, especially mass media, that a population’s self-perception is inculcated and shaped. Therefore, it is of pressing importance to understand how they construe events.

Incidentally, my time here in Kyrgyzstan has been partially spent doing preliminary “research” in the sense of conversations with various colleagues — anthropologists, activists, journalists, and friends — about my topic. Generally-speaking, there’s a lot of interest, in some cases even excitement, about my would-be project, particularly as it encompasses religious studies, regional studies, media studies, epistemology, some psychology, and anthropology. One of the cooler conversations occurred this past weekend during the Kyrgyzstan barcamp with several members and acquaintances of Internews’ Central Asian wing, in particular Nicolay Kolesnikov, a talended videographer with whom I got along very instinctively despite the language barrier (he will be good practice for my Russian once I start learning it). Nicolay was very sharp, as he immediately intuited that what I’m really exploring is whether journalists are objective.

He caught me, so to speak, red handed: when I suggested that journalists, à la Searle or Wittgenstein, are actually in the act of forging a reality out of the clash of their differing narratives, a clash that occurs ironically from their pursuit of ultimate, objective reality — indeed, they are creating an overlay of one reality over the bedrock of another, deeper one — Nicolay whipped out an analogy I didn’t see coming but which got me seriously thinking: “You know who wouldn’t need journalists? The Na’vi of James Cameron’s Avatar.” According to Nicolay, the Na’vi’s ability to interface with each other, their ecosystem, and even the souls (i.e., minds) of past generations, an ability constituting a combination of racial and geosystematic memory, rendered the problem of subjectivity moot. Theirs is a kind of collective objectivity (or objective collectivity), a unity of perspectives, perhaps in a way that is, at essence, not dissimilar from the Internet.

It was a daring argument, a challenge which, as both an Averroist and Science Fiction fan, I was more than happy to meet: I retorted with my own counter-example, that of Polish author Stanislaw Lem’s famed novel, Solaris, and it’s even more famed film version by Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. In other words, I upped the ante: he wanted to talk about conglomerate unities/pluralistic panpsychisms, but I went straight for the monopsychic jugular vein.

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The journalistic doors of perception

Next week I fly to Kyrgyzstan to participate in a workshop on Central Asian Islam that’s being hosted by the OSCE Academy, and perhaps even more importantly, to talk with the neweurasia team about the future of our small but highly unique organization in these rather ludicrous economic times. Hard realities need to be confronted and even harder choices need to be made, and not only for other people’s livelihoods and professional futures, but my own.

There is some bitterness, of course. Journalism has proven to be not all that it promised — the quest for truth and justice too often replaced with the resort to spin and the hunt for audience; the ideal of “philosophy put in daily practice” frequently side-stepped by the sophistry of deadlines and an amnesiac news cycle; and for many, even the simple relief of the byline undermined by the lack of compensation. Not only is it hard to make a living as a journalist, it is hard to make a life as one.

Still, for me, as I’ve noted numerous times before, journalism brings some subtle, spiritual leavening. As a journalist, one must be prepared to suffer countless humiliations. I’ve watched as colleagues of mine from Pakistan and Turkmenistan, celebrities and respected minds in their own countries, have been reduced to writing press releases or working in night shops here in the West just to make a living, and I’ve known countless Westerners, myself included, embarrass themselves in displays of wanton self-promotion in their panicked pursuit of the much-coveted — and increasingly vanishing — staff-writer job.

Yet, as the etymology of the word “humiliation” suggests (from Latin humus, “ground; earth; soil”), the travails of journalism somehow reduce the best of us to a lower — and therefore higher — state. We grovel, and so we are closer to the savage, dirty truth of Nature; we despair, and so we are one with the World. We embody the uncertainty that has always defined human history (the frenzied denial of which has led to so many of our species’ horrific acts), and we also hint to its eventual transcendence.

I’m constantly surprised by the ubiquity of atheism among my colleagues, particularly those from the West (my Muslim colleagues tend to suffer from it less). They let the manifold little, transient realities of injustice and insecurity blind them to the Ultimate Reality that is so tantalizingly close within their grasp, much closer than It is among the politicians, much less the philosophers.

This bastard profession, with all its hypocrisies and tragedies, has nevertheless pried open some strange, sublime doors of perception for me. Whatever happens — whether I can continue with it in some fashion, or whether I must recede back into obscurity and even more pronounced insecurity — it has been a good journey.

[Photograph by Adrienne Nakissa.]

Time of masks, time of truth

This is my favorite time of the year — Halloween and All Saints’ Day. It’s been my favorite since childhood. I remember being fascinated by the costumes, roaming around in the dark, going from house to house with friends, the way in which the world seemed to change, for just a moment, to let in something beyond itself, indeed, to become that something, in jest or in seriousness. I remember my mother explaining the famous sequence in Fantasia, the terror and fascination I felt for the dreaded creature on the mountain and the invasion of skeletal spectres, and the odd sense of eternity that came with the solemn, meditative march of lights in the fog in the denouement.

As I grew up, Halloween took on more mystical and pleasant signification for me, as it was the time that I could spend with my oldest friends, Kav and Khaalid, in the former’s large and somewhat labyrinthine house in Yonkers. Eventually, it took on great personal significance, as it also became the day when I first encountered the Bab in Haifa. Increasingly for me, this time of masks has come to mean a time of truth.

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Central Asian views on WikiLeaks: trust, truth, and tech

WikiLeaks may end up becoming Central Asia’s best hope for bringing to light their leaders’ many dark secrets, say neweurasia’s bloggers from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. Yet, there are many problems, not least of which is trust, all of which WikiLeaks or other whistle-blower websites will have to overcome.

This editorial has been cross-posted from neweurasia. It’s a slightly different version of my “Our Take” editorial for our partner site, Transitions Online, with two additional quotes and block quotes. Thanks to Barbara Frye for copy-editing the original.

The whistle-blower website WikiLeaks has made international headlines for its leaks of sensitive information related to the United States’ wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet a little-known aspect of the organization is its work in the former communist world, including Central Asia.

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Talking with Julian Assange

Unless you’ve been living on Mars, by now you’ve probably heard about the leak of a huge cache of American digital military logs by the enigmatic website, WikiLeaks.  It’s stirring a heated debate in journalism, intelligence, and legal circles.  This is an important one for the world to have, because entities like WikiLeaks may be changing the way journalists and sources, as well as governments and citizens, relate to information.

I was actually able to speak yesterday with the website’s founder, Julian Assange, in a phone interview on behalf of RFE/RL.  It was a brief conversation, unsatisfactory to the philosopher in me but satisfactory for my immediate journalistic needs.  In truth, I’d like to know more about WikiLeaks’ ideology, as well as how the group views itself vis-a-vis other “underground”, “alternative”, or “anti-authoritarian” news operations like ZNet and IndyMedia.  I’m also curious about their views on the relationship between information and society in general.

Consequently, I decided today to dig deeper into who they are, as well as the larger “Cypherpunk” and cryptographic subculture, something I’ve only very lightly touched upon in my studies of New Media.  The next time I track them down, I want to be able to ask them much more interesting and probing questions, the kind that leave both the inquirer and inquired enriched.

Key to this approach is to focus not so much on Assange as those who know him well and have worked with him.  Trust me when I say that’s no easy feat.  Some of his friends, allies, and co-workers are unknown even to him; some aren’t particularly friendly to nosy types like me; and most of all, theirs is a world of pseudonymity and anonymity.  This is new terrain for me.

In the meantime, and in lieu of the eventual fruits of this much deeper analysis, I’ve posted my very preliminary views on neweurasia, and I’m also collecting reader responses in this fairly simple and woefully unscientific poll:

World Press Freedom Day

wfp_dayToday is World Press Freedom Day, an annual day of advocacy for the freedom of the press, as well as commemoration for journalists who are suffering restriction and imprisonment, or have made the ultimate sacrifice, for the sake of the free flow of information.  “As they investigate sensitive issues, unveil disturbing truths and question policies, journalists find themselves in the firing line of those directly or indirectly exposed by their reports,” writes the World Association of Newspapers.

In the lead-up to the event, four members of Reporters Sans Frontiers have have been on a hunger strike since this past Tuesday in support of Iranian-American journalist Roxana Saberi, who has been sentenced to eight years in prison in Iran on a charge of spying for the United States.  The day before, in Paris, the RSF also staged an event for the two Asian-American journalists currently being held by the North Koran government. “The detention of Saberi, Lee and Ling on arbitrary charges demonstrates more than ever the importance of World Press Freedom Day,” writes the RSF.

Obviously, if journalists from the world’s leading power aren’t safe, then imagine the insecurity faced by journalists and their support staff throughout the world.  For example, according to a source who wishes to remain anonymous, Radio Free Europe’s Afghanistan service, Radio Azadi, routinely receives threats from the Taliban.  Last year, two of its reporters were kidnapped by the insurgent group, but were later freed.  As of this past Wednesday, group has threatened a suicide bombing against Radio Azadi’s main bureau in Kabul.

Freedom of the press saves lives. “Azadi has a real impact in the country,” the source writes in an e-mail  “A would-be suicide bomber once called them and said, ‘Thanks to your programs, I have decided not to explode myself.’  Can you imagine?”

Read the full post @ neweurasia…

If the shoe (bomb?) fits… Patriotism, professionalism, military intervention, and journalistic integrity

Did Muntader az-Zaidi cross the line between professionalism and activism, or was he acting in the journalistic spirit?
Did Muntader az-Zaidi cross the line between professionalism and activism, or was he acting in the journalistic spirit?

Hopefully this will be my last post on “shoe-gate,” or, the “shoe intifada.” I’m heading off for South Africa in a few days and I need to concentrate on preparations.  So, as you can see from my extended subtitle, I intend to kill a lot of birds with one (shoe).

Ali the Translator, an Iraqi blogger, on the day of Muntader az-Zaidi gave his now famed send-off for his dearly beloved Bush, remarks, “No matter how funny it was, it was kinda disappointing at the same time cuz ‘Journalists’ are supposed to be professional and neutral.”

Consider also American blogger Rick Perlstein, who waves his finger at liberals:

Liberals should not make light of or license the physical assault on the leader of a sovereign state, no matter how much he’s deservedly hated. This is not how we do politics, unless we’re in favor something tending toward anarchy, or fascism.  This seems open and shut to me: the Iraqi journalist should go to jail for a rather long time.

And indeed, Perlstein may very well get his wish.  The BBC reports that az-Zaidi is getting a warm reception in Iraqi jail, and by “warm” I mean a broken hand, broken ribs and internal bleeding. Which leads me to a troubling phenomenon: the defamation of Iraqis as “ungrateful” by American bloggers.

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